The X Factor of School Reform

In case you missed it, there was a great piece in yesterday’s New York Times, the core message of which has a lot of relevance for those of us who, barely a week removed from not one but two major reports of misleading test data being used to evaluate schools and school districts, continue to search for the simplest way of evaluating what may be the most complex undertaking in the professional world — creating a challenging, engaging, relevant, supportive and experiential learning environment in which all children can learn.

The Times article had nothing to say about school reform — it was about the Fed’s inability to decide whether to stimulate the economy now or later. And it was about how even in a social science flush with quantitative data, the “social” aspect of the science — i.e., human behavior — is sufficiently complex and nonlinear to make certainty a chimera. “One point I always make to my graduate students,” said Robert Solow, a Noel Prize winner and MIT professor, “is never sound more certain than you are.”

Would that such caution were commonplace in our current conversations about education reform!

Of course, the message is not that economics is a boundless free-for-all discipline that uses numbers to hide its own guesswork — charges that are sometimes made to rebut the growing push in education circles to embrace a greater use of student information to guide adult decision-making — but one message seems clear: beware the worship of “data” in your search for certainty, as long as human beings are part of the equation. “The entire question of how emotion will change people’s behavior is pretty much outside the standard model of economics,” said Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke. “Pride is not in the model. Fear is not in the model. Revenge is not in the model. Even simple things like disenchantment of people who are fired from their jobs — the model doesn’t account for how devastating that experience can be.”

Reform leaders, are you listening?

Categories: Assessment, Learning, Organizational Change

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  1. Charlotte Hummel
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Thank you for acknowledging and naming the X factor. I have felt but not heard described the sense I have that we are missing a big element – the human one. My political science proferssor (101) started his class with two central definitions: Politics is simply the process by which a determination is made as to who gets to distribute which resources. In the US the people get to choose who….and contributes the what (taxes). For me “politics” has never been a dirty word, politics is at the core of self-governance. His second was an admonition: Do not assume that we are being governed by rationale men (people). This has always given me a channel to the X factor. When I can’t wrap my mind around someone’s position in terms of the rationale, I go next to the emotional/spiritual.
    Thanks for articulating this!

    PS Sam, with the Amazon gift card I bought things that are completely frivolous – crocheting pattern books. I also am an avid knitter and books like these are NOT frivolous if you consider one of my personal motto’s “I knit so I won’t kill people.”

  2. Sam
    Posted October 18, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing, Charlotte, and here’s to the calming effect of knitting needles!

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